If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that most of us are pretty bad at dealing with uncertainty. Either we’re optimistically booking holidays and Airbnbs for “when all this is over” – if not next week, then certainly by Christmas – or we’re slumped on the sofa, convinced that slumping on the sofa and maybe watching other people slump on their sofas over Zoom is all we will ever do.
Both of these responses, however, as Nicole Seymour points out in Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age (2020), are “different sides of the same coin, a coin that represents humans’ desire for certainty and neat narratives about the future.” Easier to say “things will be this way forever” than “we have no idea how things will be next week, next month or next year.” Worse: we have no control over how they might be. Digging into the middle space between the two is difficult and scary; yet it is also where reality happens, and where we might, if we stick with it long enough, start to change it. So how, given the anxious, control-hungry creatures we are, can we do that?
This is a question that haunted almost all of my conversations with researchers and educators as part of our Arts & Climate in Higher Education series; indeed, conceptualizing interdisciplinarity as an “and” which allows us to pay attention to that which individual disciplines leave out, as I did in my first blog post, suggests that a willingness to engage with uncertainty is the (wobbly) foundation on which interdisciplinarity is built. Developing strategies for delving into the spaces between and beyond what each discipline is sure of is also crucial to the pedagogy and the theory of interdisciplinary arts and climate change education, as I have explored in my second and third posts. For this reason, my fourth and final blog post is asking: what is at stake in our struggle with hope and despair? And how might we move beyond it?
Seymour, who teaches the Literature and Environment course at California State University, Fullerton in the U.S., focuses on texts which illuminate how and why we are failing to deal with climate change. They are often funny, using irony and humor to satirize such failures and point towards different ways of creatively responding to the crisis. The assumption – which she effectively dismantles in Bad Environmentalism – is that climate art can and should do one of two things: teach people about climate change and serve as a mode of catharsis. This leads to an overwhelming affect of earnestness which, paradoxically, makes people less likely to engage. A similar point is made by an activist character in Jenny Offill’s novel, Weather: “people are sick of being lectured to about glaciers.” The activist, however, is sick of having to add an “obligatory note of hope” to the end of every one of her talks, eventually concluding that “there is no hope, only witness.” Bearing witness, argues Seymour, is one of the many other things environmental art, when freed from the earnest tones of environmentalism, can do. Perhaps bearing witness to the affective difficulty of bearing witness is an important part of this, both in and out of the classroom.
Interdisciplinarity, with its acceptance of not-knowing, contradiction, and uncertainty, is perhaps best suited to bearing this sort of witness. Ingrid Horrocks and Laura-Jean McKay, who lead the Eco-Fictions and Non-Fictions undergraduate course at Massey University in New Zealand, choose texts which are capable of holding multiple and contradictory narrative threads; these texts slide between mundane and global scales while witnessing the specific environmental histories of the local region. Laura and Ingrid believe that giving students the opportunity to connect their lived experience with the material being studied helps prevent any collapse into despair. It is no wonder, then, that encouraging students to connect with their physical environments is a key feature of so many courses I’ve looked at so far, such as those in the Environmental Studies Department at Wofford College, South Carolina, and the Art and Place MA at Dartington College of the Arts in the UK, both of which emphasize experiential and field-based learning; and the Design for Performing Arts MFA Program at York University in Canada, where students generate specific change proposals for their campus. Here, as elsewhere, engaging with the complexity and the difficulty of the broader issues facilitates a focused and creatively constructive engagement with those that touch on students’ immediate surroundings.
Hope that is born of a recognition of how bad things are is very different, then, from the “things will be better by x,” “we’ll find some sort of tech to save us” escape-valve variety. It might point towards a better future; it might also spring from the past. It is to this end that John Willis’s – paradoxically named – environmental history course, Inviting Doomsday: US Environmental Problems in the Twentieth Century at the University of Kent, UK, is designed. Through studying specific examples of climate activism, students grapple with the complex ways in which socio-economic and cultural systems contribute to climate change, and the ways in which activists have historically tackled this. When he started teaching the course 15 years ago, British students saw its content as far away and only relevant to the U.S. Now, however, there is a greater sense of anxiety and urgency among the students. Through topic-based learning and interdisciplinary research, they are encouraged to draw out the multiple and conflicting stories around specific environmental issues. “It’s harder, now, to instill positivity,” he says. “Although examples of successful activism, and figures like Rachel Carson, can offer some sort of hope.” He is quiet for a moment. Then he adds: “though the general situation is quite dire.”
In her book Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman (2020), Rebecca Tamás argues that what is often represented as “climate grief” in popular culture is in fact “climate despair:” “a misery which shuts down our ability to think critically and to have any version of hope.” By contrast, “Grieving for the environment means … rejecting total despair, but it also means giving up on any romanticized visions one might have had of an unblemished, pure natural world, where the human can turn to the nonhuman for relief and easy comfort.”
Reading Tamás, I had an “a-ha” moment: this, I think, is what these interdisciplinary courses and programs are beginning to do. Leaning into the spaces between disciplines and categories means learning to let go of uncertainty; it can be difficult, scary, and confusing, yes, yet it can also be funny, surprising, and joyful. It might mean simply bearing witness to our failures to bear witness to the true complexity of it all. It might mean forming new horizontal connections with our classmates and our teachers in order to identify places and ways to make a positive difference. What I felt, as researchers described their experimental pedagogies and teaching practices, was that I was glimpsing a different future.
This article is part of our series on Arts & Climate in Higher Education.
Clare Fisher is a novelist, short story writer, and researcher based in Leeds, UK. She is the author of All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) and How the Light Gets In (2018). Her work has won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She is studying for a practice-led PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds and teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College and Queen Mary University of London. She can be found on Twitter at @claresitafisher.